Former plant manager says she was fired for airing city’s ‘dirty laundry’ weeks before Jackson water crisis

Mary Carter speaks at a press conference last summer regarding Jackson water.
Mary Carter speaks at a press conference last summer regarding Jackson water.(WLBT)
Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 2:16 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A former Jackson water plant manager is suing the city for wrongful termination, saying that she was fired after airing the city’s “dirty laundry” in an interview with WLBT.

Mary Carter, the former deputy director of water operations, filed suit in U.S. District Court in December, saying that the city violated her First Amendment Constitutional rights.

Carter was fired in September, a little more than a week into Jackson’s August/September water crisis and less than a month after contradicting Public Works Director Marlin King in an interview with 3 On Your Side on plant staffing shortages.

[Read: Exclusive: Emails reveal staffing shortage threatened to shut down water treatment plants]

She is seeking back wages, reinstatement, payment in lieu of reinstatement, and other damages.

Carter alleges that on August 22, 2022, days after our investigation revealed severe staffing shortages at the city’s two water treatment facilities, she was asked to attend a meeting at City Hall regarding contract operations for the plants.

Instead, when Carter arrived, she was forced to sit at a conference table directly across from Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and was told, “‘We should not be airing our dirty laundry in public.’”

“By now, everyone realized Mayor Lumumba was looking directly at the plaintiff and they all looked at her too,” Carter’s attorney wrote. “Realizing that [the mayor] was speaking to her, [the] plaintiff responded, ‘OK.’”

Carter says the mayor was joined by Chief of Staff Safiya Omari, Chief Financial Officer Fidelis Malembeka, City Attorney Catoria Martin, then Public Works Director Marlin King, Acting Finance Director Sharon Thames, Public Works Attorney Terry Williamson, and City Engineer Robert Lee.

Lumumba’s bodyguards Hondo Lumumba and Marcus Williams also were present, court records indicate.

So, what was that dirty laundry? In an August 18 report, Carter openly disputed King’s claims that the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant was always staffed with Class A operators.

At least one Class A operator is required at each of the city’s treatment plants 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

King told WLBT the plants always had coverage. Carter denied that.

The former water plant operator aired more dirty laundry in her suit, claiming that King only attended meetings with EPA sporadically and “was often observed sleeping and not attentive” when he did show up.

Meanwhile, court records indicate the EPA was growing all the more concerned about conditions at the city’s treatment plants, including the “net loss [of] both operators and maintenance staff” and the city’s failure to provide the agency with a plan to bring staffing levels up.

The city agreed to submit a plan as part of a June 30, 2021, administrative order with the EPA.

For its part, the city denied most, if not all of Carter’s claims. However, in its response, attorneys for Jackson did not deny or admit to Carter’s claims that there were, at times, no Class A operators on duty O.B. Curtis.

Carter alleges that following her meeting with the mayor, she was “locked out” of the city’s recovery efforts during the August/September water crisis and was dismissed a little more than a week into that crisis for failing to cooperate with responders at the height of the emergency.

In late August, the state took over operations at the Curtis plant after equipment failures there left tens of thousands of people without water. The Mississippi State Department of Health, and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency set up an emergency command center at the Curtis plant to oversee restoration efforts.

Carter alleges that despite being the city’s top water official, the mayor appointed the city engineer to be the city’s representative on the command staff.

She also says she attempted to attend several command staff meetings but was unable to, and that she was told by Jordan Hillman, then the city’s interim Public Works Director, that she would be included in updates to the administration.

However, Carter says she was not included on those emails and was only privy to information that was given to the public.

Meanwhile, Carter says that the city dismissed her advice to hire private contractors, rather than use city crews to repair a broken main serving on the Curtis plant’s conventional basins.

“Ms. Hillman disregarded this suggestion and had the city of Jackson crew come out anyway. The city of Jackson crew began digging but soon realized they did not have the equipment to complete the project. MEMA safety personnel eventually shut the city of Jackson crew down because of unsafe working conditions,” court records claim.

Carter eventually aired her concerns in a September 9 email that was sent to Hillman and Lee, as well as Chief of Staff Safiya Omari and Chief Administrative Officer Louis Wright.

That same afternoon, she was called to a meeting with Hillman and was dismissed. “Ms. Hillman alleged that during the prior two weeks, she had noticed that [the] plaintiff was not cooperating with the emergency personnel at the plant, and she decided it was time to sever ties,” Carter’s attorney wrote. “Ms. Hillman gave [the] plaintiff a termination letter... Notably, the letter makes no mention of the allegation that [the] plaintiff had been in any way uncooperative.”

Carter “contends that during the time in question, i.e., from August 29 to September 9, 2022, she was fully cooperative with the personnel involved in the emergency water situation.”

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